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Alberta’s Most Innovative Organizations of 2016

This year's top innovators embody what it means to take an idea and improve on it

Aug 4, 2016

by Alberta Venture Staff

We often think of innovative technologies as moonshots.

We envision the kind of ground-shifting ideas that disrupt industries and change our lives. But the most significant innovations are subtler. They can be something as simple as tweaking a company’s supply chain to centralize its ­distribution network, or interchanging a higher-emissions process with lower-emissions one.

A basic software program that monitors a company’s facilities could save millions of dollars.

While innovation requires people to rethink an idea or incorporate an advanced technology, those ideas and technologies don’t always turn the world upside-down. Innovation is usually incremental. The implementation of steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology in Alberta, a process that produces oil sands by injecting steam down a well, is often pegged as a singular technology that indisputably changed the industry. In truth, it was much more gradual – a collection of technologies and ideas coming together over time. The “aha” moment in the lab was followed by many subsequent failures and misfires.

For our Most Innovative listing this year, Alberta Venture focused on the organizations who are rethinking how they do what they do – whether it is through massive overhauls or gradual improvements. This year, we’ve included a wide range of companies and organizations who are leading the way in agriculture, medicine, finance and manufacturing. Each has made strides that are impressive, and that build off of the countless hours of research and investment that came before them. In that sense, all innovation is collaborative – and slower than we sometimes realize. Rarely is there a true moonshot technology that erupts from nowhere.

For Engaging Young Minds in Business

West Island College is a small private high school in Calgary with big ideas. The school found that anywhere between 15 and 30 per cent of its graduating class was enrolling in post-secondary business programs so, six years ago, the school launched a business institute. Now, students from Grades 7 to 12 can enroll in business modules covering everything from financial literacy to entrepreneurial thinking to micro- and macro-economics. “It’s experiential learning,” says Scott Bennett, the lead instructor. “Students start and run businesses, keep books, raise capital and do a business plan and a shareholders report.”

The key to the institute is its partnerships. WIC has teamed up with Junior Achievement so students can use JA’s Titan business simulation software and with companies as diverse as WestJet, Robots and Pencils and Trico Homes for hands-on learning. It has also engaged with influential businesspeople like Manjit Minhas, CEO of Minhas Breweries (and an alumnus) and Michael Tims, CEO of Peters & Co. Tims has a child at the school and Bennett says from the very beginning he advocated that the institute use the case method of learning, which Bennett has enthusiastically adopted.

WIC has also spread the benefits of the institute around by partnering with other high schools. “We have six or seven, mostly public schools, that join us for case competitions and speaker events,” says head of school Carol Grant-Watt. “The opportunity for students to network with their peers and get different viewpoints from other schools has been great.”

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For Making Us Work Harder

It should come as no surprise that a company whose products revolve around self-improvement and performance analysis will perpetually one-up itself. Such is the case with 4iiii (pronounced “four eyes”), a Cochrane-based tech company. It supplies its power meters – basically, sports electronics that track and record energy output – to Etixx-Quick Step, the world’s most-awarded pro-cycling team over the last four years. Started by husband and wife Kip Fyfe and Victoria Brilz, who were co-founders of tech pioneer Dynastream before it was sold to Garmin in 2006, 4iiii has amassed an impressive suite of world-class technologies, including a heads-up display system that Brilz calls a “performance coach,” which gives the rider real-time audiovisual feedback. What makes the power meter so fascinating – and the centre of so much recent hype – is its complex integration of state-of-the-art software into a miniscule nine-gram meter that attaches to the bike’s crankshaft. “What makes us different is our constant desire to not just take a product category and say, ‘Let’s make one,’” Fyfe says. “We don’t even want to get into a category unless we can find and define a really meaningful and relevant aspect that we think consumers will find really appealing.”

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For Bringing the World to Alberta

It’s a big world out there, and Travel Alberta wants to connect even the smallest Albertan tourism operators with it. The Crown corporation launched a new website in May, and has opened it up to every operator in the province with the Alberta Tourism Information System. ATIS allows operators – many of whom don’t have the time, money or experience to create a comprehensive marketing program, to upload pictures, videos and stories to their own page on the site. “It’s like they have a ready-made, mini website among a larger digital infrastructure,” says Royce Chwin, CEO of Travel Alberta. “When they fill it up with their content it allows their brand expression to come through.” ATIS is basically a giant digital warehouse, and in that warehouse is stored all the tourism experiences offered in the province. “Those experiences give us the stories about Alberta and what makes us special,” Chwin says. “We can then distribute it in multiple channels in multiple markets in different languages to the travelers we want to come and visit Alberta.”

About 3,500 operators have so far taken advantage of ATIS, and Chwin expects that number to at least double.

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For Amazing Medical Advances

Industrial designers now have a place in medicine, creating 3-D models of patients’ skulls to guide surgeons through reconstructive operations.

Heather Logan, the first student to complete a master’s degree in rehabilitation science at the University of Alberta with a specialization in surgical design and simulation, creates 3-D models to simulate reconstructive surgeries. “I always wanted to work in a field where I was actually making a difference for people,” Logan says. “I can use my skills to improve patients’ quality of life or just make life easier for them.”

Logan does so by turning a two-dimensional image into a 3-D model of a patient’s skull. Using software, the iRSM team can then simulate the surgery, providing an accurate guide specific to that patient’s anatomy. For instance, a jaw bone can be reconstructed using the fibula bone, located in the leg. Logan can create a cutting guide for the jaw and the leg so the replacement bone is the correct angle, length and shape to match the patient’s skull, “like a puzzle piece,” she says. “You can think of it as reverse engineering. We are always trying to build the patient as closely as they were before their surgery.”

The patients at iRSM are primarily affected by head and neck cancer, but this technology can also be applied to many fields of healthcare, including cardiology, orthopedics, and neurosurgery – breast reconstruction is next on the docket for the iRSM team.

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For Big Ideas in Small Packages

No one likes to think about moving into long-term care facilities. But for many of us, it’ll be necessary – most traditional homes, after all, are designed for the healthy and able-bodied. But the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Environmental Design, in partnership with medical researchers, the Faculty of Nursing and the Alberta Real Estate Foundation, has designed and built small homes that are equipped with integrated health-monitoring technology. The Aging-In-Place Laneway Housing project aims to keep seniors near their family by making homes small enough to fit on existing lots, but to also equip them with high-tech medical technology to allow people to stay independent. Not only has Calgary’s city council agreed to examine the pilot project, but the Calgary Real Estate Board is eager to embrace it, as well – which means that healthier seniors’ homes could soon be coming to a laneway near you.

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For Joining the Green Shift

The discovery of oil at the Leduc #1 well in 1947 was an iconic moment that transformed Alberta. People can still see the site, which has been converted into a museum that gives visitors a glimpse into the province’s past. And now, as part of its Living Energy Project, the museum also functions as a glimpse into the future. The Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre had already installed solar, wind and cogeneration infrastructure on its sprawling 55-acre property to inform visitors about renewable technologies and to provide energy for the museum.

Now, the museum intends to install an additional form of renewables: Geothermal. By converting a decades-old Imperial Oil well adjacent to its property, the museum will provide space heating to its facilities while also showcasing Alberta’s supply of geothermal capacity.

“Our biggest goal out there is to be self-sustaining,” says Tim Hawkins, president of the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Centre. “Keeping a museum going has always come with challenges, so this looked like an opportunity to get ourselves back out in the public eye and tell visitors about new forms of renewable energy.”

Geothermal energy remains largely untapped in Canada. The process involves drawing from natural reservoirs of thermal energy located deep below the Earth’s surface, which can be used for heat or exchanged into other forms of energy. Aside from the benefits of tapping into geothermal sources, which don’t suffer intermittency issues like other sources of renewable energy, Hawkins says the effort is symbolic. “This is the next step,” he says. “The resources are there to tackle this project, and to find a tie-in between fossil fuels and the new world of geothermal and solar and wind power.” Like geothermal energy itself, the project is in its early stages.

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For Betting Big on Renewables

The power gen­eration industry is changing fast. Costs for solar-generated power sources – and to a lesser extent, wind sources – are falling at a mind-numbing pace. Governments around the world are implementing policies to curb coal-fired power. TransAlta is at the centre of this shift in Alberta, and the company is willing to adapt. The company has invested in a number of new technologies and processes since it spun off its subsidiary TransAlta Renewables in 2013. Many of the company’s innovations have been internal. A group of its engineers developed software in-house that allows operators to monitor and diagnose problems in the company’s nearly 1,000 wind turbines. TransAlta has invested significant dollars in wind energy, and now produces 21 megawatts (MW) of power from a solar farm in Massachusetts and over 1,500 MW of wind power from 22 wind farms around North America (wind accounts for 15 per cent of its total generating capacity). It has also made numerous small investments. In June of 2015 it announced it would spend $1.5 million as part of an energy storage initiative alongside Tesla as a way to make electricity systems smarter and more efficient.

Taking an oatmeal bath to soothe dry, itchy skin is not a myth. In fact, finely milled oats suspended in water has been used for centuries as a cleanser, moisturizer, buffer, and anti-inflammatory agent. So, the next time you pick up an oatmeal-based skin care product, you can thank Ceapro for your relief. Ceapro is a biotechnology company that develops and commercializes ingredients from renewable natural sources, like Albertan crops. The ingredients are used in everything from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals and food products around the globe.

What’s more, two of Ceapro’s researchers, Bernhard Seifried and Feral Temelli, co-invented a breakthrough processing technology – PGX – that produces numerous biopolymers ranging from fine fibres to granular powder. What does this mean for non-scientists? A better hand cream, of course. Currently, the bioscience company and its research partners are investigating Canadian crops for new natural plant sources to add to cosmetic and personal care products.

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For Developing New Techniques

Alberta’s oil sands are facing a market that is more competitive than it has been in more than a decade. As producers learned to tap vast pools of shale and light-tight oil in the U.S., capital was quickly drawn away from comparably expensive sources like the oil sands. Alberta’s producers have begun to invest to meet this competition – and Imperial Oil is among the top companies doing so. It has piloted a broad suite of technologies aimed at reducing carbon emissions, lower costs and cutting back on water consumption. The company is testing a number of different production technologies at its Cold Lake leases that involve using solvents – typically liquid gases like propane or butane, though a variety of components could be used – as a way to produce oil using less energy. It has also used a steam flooding process to reinvigorate older wells to produce oil while cutting its GHG emissions intensity by 30 per cent. Today the company’s Cold Lake operation uses 88 per cent less freshwater than it did in the 1970s, and it recycles around 80 per cent of the water it consumes.

For Tracking Transiting Trucks

The California Department of Transportation’s Cordelia Truck Scale handles nearly 10,000 trucks per day as they travel from the Port of Oakland along I-80 to Northern California and beyond. It’s the busiest commercial vehicle inspection station in the U.S., and recently underwent a complete overhaul to improve efficiency. Included in the upgrades were a number of technologies from Intelligent Imaging Systems (IIS), including the recently patented Vehicle Waveform Identification system. VWI electronically tags and tracks trucks based on their magnetic fingerprint. “Magnetometers buried in the road measure the difference in the earth’s magnetic field caused by the vehicle passing over it,” says Doug Johnson, IIS’s director of marketing. “You could have two otherwise identical trucks but they have different magnetic fingerprints.”

At Cordelia, magnetometers have been installed on the way in, on the way out and in various lanes so officials know the vehicles are following instructions and information can be tied to specific trucks. “It gathers data in real time and assigns a profile to that vehicle,” Johnson says. “Wherever that vehicle is in that station, the profile goes with it. It saves a ton of time.” And, one can surmise, improves safety on the roads.

For Improving Water Recycling

Canadian heavy oil producers endure a long list of challenges specific to the characteristics of the product they sell to market. Among those challenges is the difficulty of separating heavy oil from water after production. That’s why RJ Oil continues to develop a water separation technology that aims to make it cheaper and less carbon intensive to treat water.

The company has proven its low-energy separation technology in numerous demonstrations and on-site applications, including pilot projects with Pengrowth Energy and Connacher Oil and Gas. On a basic level, the technology takes processed water from a company’s operations and applies a “controlled gas induction” process that separates the oil from the water, and then channels the remaining waste stream through a series of flotation tanks that skim off excess oil. In most cases, the technology requires no heat or chemical additives, and can take processed water down to as little as 25 parts per million of oil (processed water levels vary, but typically come in around 10,000 ppm of oil). It’s a significant reduction. “At less than 25 ppm, it looks like drinking water,” says Kiely MacLean, a general manager at RJ Oil.

There’s a growing need for more efficient water separation technologies. “There is a lot of pressure on oil producers to improve their processes, and regulators are starting to get stricter about water usage more generally,” says Jack Seguin, the president of RJ Oil. By increasing the amount of oil that is recovered while decreasing the amount of water that is lost, companies can also lower their operating costs at a time when commodity prices remain low. But while the technology has mostly been used for heavy oil producers, it has also been applied to conventional oil projects – and the company is looking to expand into industries outside of energy.

For Turning CO2 into Low-Carbon Fuels

There were two pieces missing in creating a plant that could use atmospheric CO2 and renewable electricity to synthesize fuels. The first was a carbon tax—an incentive to use fuels that are not carbon intensive and the second was the ability to capture CO2 out of thin air. Geoffrey Holmes, director of business development, says Carbon Engineering has addressed the latter and policy-makers are headed in the right direction for the former. “Once those two preconditions are met, the technical work of pulling 2 out of the air, using renewable electricity to split water and make hydrogen is a fairly well known technology,” he says.

Carbon Engineering’s demonstration plant is up and running in Squamish, B.C. The team is working to improve performance by running tests and tracking the data. “Things as they are, are very acceptable,” Holmes says. “But there are gains to be had and we are going to get them.” The Calgary-based company would like to commercialize and create an industrial scale plant that would take about one million tonnes of CO2 from the air each year and transform it into low-carbon transportation fuels. “We’d like to play a role in helping the transportation sector de-carbonize, and help the whole economy de-carbonize.”

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